Defy Conventional Wisdom

U.S. President Barack Obama should tell the Israeli people that ending the occupation serves Israel's own national interests

22kes88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
An article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. For the three weeks of the Gaza war, Israel staved off what has been the conventional wisdom in all Mideast wars - linkage between Palestinian-Israeli hostilities and subsequent efforts to resolve the whole Arab-Israel conflict. Conventional wisdom dictates a new American president doesn't plunge headlong into the Middle East. Conventional wisdom dictates a new president waits for the dust of war to settle before trying to resolve a conflict that has eluded American peace-makers for more than six decades. In his inauguration address, U.S. President Barack Obama took that to heart; not even a mention of the buzzwords - "Israeli-Arab conflict," "Palestinian-Israel peace." In less than a fortnight, Israelis go to the polls to decide their post-war direction. Conventional wisdom dictates that you don't interfere in the elections of other states - definitely not of friendly states. Conventional wisdom also dictates that a U.S. leader will only succeed in promoting a durable peace if he assumes the role of honest broker. Identifying with the plight of people on one side is all too easy. In the tragedy that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you soon land up identifying with the pain of the other side. You end up solving nothing. This is no time to be bogged down in justifications over Israel's right to defend its Gaza border while ignoring it's still an occupying power in the West Bank. Equally, this is no time to be bogged down by intimidating public outrage about the tragic consequences of the war on the Palestinians of Gaza, and so let the Arab world off the hook on its commitment to the Arab League Peace Initiative for a comprehensive settlement. Obama fought his way to the White House by eschewing conventional wisdom. This is no time for him to stray onto well-beaten paths. He should defy past failures and engage now. He should act immediately to consolidate the outcome of the war in Gaza by effectively helping block any re-arming of Hamas and helping lift the Israeli blockade on the free movement of people and goods. At the same time, he should stand full-square behind President Mahmud Abbas's Palestinian Authority and underwrite the progress made under the stewardship of special international envoy Tony Blair in laying the economic and security foundations of the Palestinian state. Timing is of the essence, says conventional wisdom. Context is more important. The Gaza war was about the legitimacy of war in self-defense, rebuilding the deterrence of a state defending its borders. And that raises the core question of what constitutes legitimate Israeli borders and legitimate Palestinian resistance to occupation. This is the moment and these are the circumstances for Obama again to defy conventional wisdom. Without waiting for the war dust to settle, without waiting for the election results, his mission should be to convince Israeli voters that the context of the war must be about ending the occupation of Palestinian lands and, in consequence, about gaining acceptance for their own permanent borders. For decades, conventional wisdom anchored demands for the end of the Israeli occupation on moral grounds. Israelis tended to see giving up land as a concession or sacrifice. But Obama should encourage Israelis to ask what they would be gaining, instead of asking themselves what they would be giving up, by getting out of the territories. He should point out that Gaza now, as Lebanon two years ago, has proven that holding territory does not enhance Israel's national security. Deterrence does. With the consent of the international community, Israel successfully deterred its enemies - Hizballah and now Hamas - from within its own borders. The message from Obama to Israelis should be plain: Whom you chose as your leader is your business. But as Israel's proven friend, America's equation is simple: We will continue to stand by you, do whatever it takes to underwrite Israel's security and legitimacy in the region. For your part, you have to recognize that we do not accept the legitimacy of the ongoing occupation in the West Bank, which precludes the possibility of reaching a full-scale agreement with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world. His must be a bold new approach that sets aside the hackneyed "land-for-peace" equation: Instead he should talk about "land-for-security" - ending the occupation (of Palestine) for genuine security (for Israel). How to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians is, for now, simply not to try to make peace, but to create security conditions for ending the occupation. Obama should tell the Israeli people now that ending the occupation is not about Palestinian rights, but about serving Israel's own national interests and security. It's not a question of pressuring Israel; this is in Israel's interest - end the occupation and you'll get the security you crave, underwritten by iron-clad U.S. guarantees. Peace will follow. • Jerrold Kessel & Pierre Klochendler are independent filmmakers and writers living in Jerusalem. An article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.